What makes a story science fiction? It’s a notoriously hard thing to pin down, as a genre, and like most categorization, it’s largely personal. The approach I look for in good science fiction is interrogative. It is journalism, reporting back from a possible future, a distorted present or an alternate past. The science fiction writer examines the state of this world they’ve “discovered” and tries to both trace and contextualize the social, technological, and political factors that made it. And just as good journalism helps us understand the world around us, so does good science fiction. Not only its institutions or its culture, but the lives of the individuals who have to live in it.
Science fiction is an empathy engine.
Imagine the man, never having seen his own image. He sees other men, and pities them as one does a hobbled dog or the bird with a broken wing. This pity follows naturally; where they have only ugly knots of flesh to crown them, he has the whole world sitting atop his shoulders. He pities them, but he also despises them, for being so much less than him, for being so other.
And then he sees his own reflection in some reflecting pool, and — revelation! He is just a man, limited and hideous after all, not a world. And he sees that he has a tribe, and has had a tribe all along.
However strange the worlds within it become, however bizarre the aliens, good science fiction reflects something of ourselves back at us. It is a mirror, one with the power to transform. And, especially as children, it can become practice for understanding the motives of others — others who might seem alien, or bizarre. It gives us tools to understand a world that has, itself, become a kind of science fiction, a world of ever-accelerating strange.
As time has accelerated (and it has indeed accelerated: it is estimated that, compared to past centuries, the 21st century will see twenty thousand years of progress, not one hundred), Science Fiction has become our coping mechanism, users manual, and collective workspace. And as globalization has diminished the concept of distance and brought the disparate cultures of the world into close contact, we as a people desperately need the tools for cognitive empathy; the tools to see the world as others do, and to see that worldview as somehow valid.
In my comic, Maxwell’s Demons, our main character Maxwell Maas escapes an abusive father by encountering, and learning from, new worlds. Many of them are anathema to him; worlds built inside the carcasses of dead space gods, worlds where thermodynamics run backwards, sentient worlds with their own geological agendas. He – and we – struggle to understand, struggle to find something of us in them. Whether it’s single celled aliens or alcoholic fathers, the project is the same. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail. But we have to try. Our survival depends on it.
Science Fiction gives us a safe place to do that work. As our collective capacity and knowledge grow exponentially, our collective wisdom remains, at best, a linear function, (though it sometimes feels like a sinusoid). Fiction draws the line between “them” and “us”, and science fiction helps us come to cognitive grips with a world that is increasingly without context or precedent.
Science Fiction takes us into the minds of ‘the other’, and allows us to see some part of ourselves in them, something humane if not human. It has never been a more vital function in society as it is today, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Deniz Camp is the award winning author of MAXWELL’S DEMONS, out from Vault Comics at https://www.comixology.com/